My last TV audition went like this: “Look into the camera and tell us a little about yourself. Like, what shows you’ve been on, what your relationship philosophy is, how old you are…?”
The producer slipped in that last one, but I was not going to budge. It wasn’t because I’m ashamed of my age, and it didn’t have anything to do with the fact that it’s illegal for her to have asked me, but I know that she, and everyone else who will see my audition tape, will judge me based on it. I hear it all the time: “Oh wow! You look so much younger,” or “Jeez, I didn’t realize you were over 40.”
“Not me,” she said. “I would never lie about my age. I’m just not going to erase years that I’ve earned.”
I wish all women on television were so bold. But I know that the media loves to reduce us to numbers, our age specifically. They love to remind us how old women are as encouragement (“See who looks great at 50!”), but also to shame us (“Stars who haven’t aged well” in the New York Daily News.) It’s always, “Sofia Vergara, 43, says…” or “Sandra Bullock, 51, is starring in…” Imagine if the media put our weight instead? “Reese Witherspoon, 105 pounds, says…”
Why does it matter to them so much? When I think about all the women I know in their 40s and 50s, or mid-life, they shatter every stereotype. I wonder what these numbers truly mean anymore.
Here’s a disturbing thought, Gail Sheehy wrote Passages in 1977 about her midlife crisis at 35. Like many people, my life was just getting started at 35. I had just gotten married for the first time and had just launched my very own syndicated radio show after being a radio peon for nearly ten years. I’m not an outlier. Most of the women in my age group were in the same place. We were marrying later, turning our endless multitude of McJobs into real careers by our early 30s and making real money. By 35 years old, we were finally feeling like adults.
Maybe that’s why our 40s and 50s are not marked by some of those hacky ageing myths that our grandmothers had to endure. Now, it’s not uncommon to hear about someone in her 50s getting an advanced degree. Women are able to have children later and later, and it’s no longer shocking to have your first kid in your 40s.
There is definitely a shift going on in the time line, and our ideas, as well as our language, need to catch up to it.
I’m most offended by the forgetfulness TV trope. There is always some actress over 40 acting like she’s losing her marbles. Science counteracts this finding that, in fact, we do continue to grow brain cells as we get older, so our skills are at their peak.
Our intellect continues to grow, but more importantly, our mastery for important tasks doesn’t crystalize until we’re older. We’re better at many skills, especially the ones that have to do with our careers and have been doing our entire lives. “Most great artists hit their stride in their 50s because their brains are sharper; their eyes are keener,” Robi says. “They have finally mastered what they do.”
I think of the years I spent working with Joan Rivers. At the time, she was 70 and was always the smartest, edgiest and funniest person in the room. Nobody was as talented or as cool as she was. Certainly not twenty-something-year-old me.
And how about those sitcoms who portray women over 50 as old maids who will never meet anyone? Robi disagrees. “I have only seen healthier relationships in the over-40 set,” she tells me. “They have found love in their lives because they finally know what they want and they don’t have these endless unrealistic, high-maintenance lists or what a man must have.”
In my twenties, I wanted a guy with a cool job that made lots of money. But women in mid-life have their own money, so they are more focused on character qualities and partner potential in a more egalitarian way. Robi adds that the myth of men wanting younger women might be the fodder for film; in reality, that isn’t the case. “Men want age-appropriate women who they can relate to. They want someone who has been through life in the same way they have and who is not needy.”
This is certainly true for me. I met my boyfriend when I turned 40, and I know that we will be together the rest of our lives. He’s everything I had been looking for in my 20s and 30s, but wasn’t mature enough to recognize his value. My proof? We first met when we were 24 and I rejected him, but now in my 40s, he’s a once-in-a-lifetime guy.
By holding these ideas that are not reflected around us, we limit our ability to enjoy a great time in our lives when we’re at our best. When we judge other women based on age alone, we encourage them to feel shame. Any time that we have a myth that disempowers women, we’re all shooting ourselves in the foot. When we allow women to think they have an expiration date, we stop them from future successes, which also ceases to help the next generation feel empowered.
For more on this topic, check out Robi Ludwig’s new book, Your Best Age is Now (Harper Collins).